The other night I watched a program about UFOs and conspiracies. At least, I watched the first part of it, I was too annoyed to sit in front of the telly for the whole thing, but I heard it droning on while I sat in front of Luigi [my computer], and so 'got' pretty well all of it. The documentary was called 'I know what I saw', and it was very heavy on anecdotal evidence and ideas about cover-ups, and very light on science. It was surprising to find it aired on ABC-2.
The commentary was another thing. Cleverly, just when I was starting to think 'silly rednecks', on would come a UFO-convinced senior scientist, a politician, an astronaut, to scramble my preconceptions. Just when I was starting to think 'dumb Yanks' [It was a US program], the interviewee would suddenly be a Frenchman or a German, and so on. Basically it was about a lot of people talking about things they saw which didn't make sense to them, sometimes phenomena seen by a group of people [though there was no attempt to treat these group sightings scientifically - that is, to determine whether each person's description correlated with those of the others]. Often the sightings were by pilots, by military personnel and the like, with the implication that these people are more trustworthy than your average Jo. The conspiracy theory element was constantly hammered - the central point being that, since the seventies, the US air force has refused to inquire into the endlessly growing number of UFO sightings [who can blame them?], with the usual assumptions about suppressing information, 'our government is our worst enemy' etc etc.
The first and last thing thing I wanted to scream at the screen during all this was - where's the science? I personally believe in UFOs - that's to say, I believe that there are thousands, maybe scores of thousands, of flying objects - saucer-shaped, cigar-shaped, lights in the sky, etc etc, that people have not identified. Why not? I think in the vast majority of cases, it's because they haven't tried hard enough - they've preferred to settle for the 'aliens from outer space' scenario. It's a lot sexier than any other alternative. I don't think these people are charlatans - though no doubt some are. I do think they are people whose credulity has outstripped their knowledge. This might come as a surprise when there are astronauts and scientists talking of these things, but of course you can always find a scientist or an 'expert' who acts as an 'outlier', way outside the statistical average. But let's look at the scientific knowledge.
As I've said, there was virtually no science at all in this documentary. At one point [and I'm quoting from memory here] the film-maker was asked a question by a radio presenter, presumably about a particular group sighting. She had sought out a military/scientific expert on the matter, and thus armed she asked: 'Why was there no strong force field felt on the ground, and no damage, such as burnt fields, uprooted trees etc, which you would expect to find if the vessel was as large and fast-moving and as close to the ground as witnesses suggest?' The film-maker just shrugged: 'I've no idea.' This could've been an important starting point for exploration but of course it wasn't taken up. Mystery was emphasised, attempts at explanation minimised.
A more important question, of course, is where do these devices or machines come from if they involve a non-terrestrial technology, as implied and occasionally overtly claimed? Do they all come from the same 'outer space' planet, or do we have a wide variety of space invaders and extra-terrestrial locations to deal with? Is there a pattern to these sighted objects which might suggest to us that they were all built by the same extra-terrestrial civilization? And how did they get here, considering what we know of distances, light-speed limitations and so forth?
Well, let's look at a few of these questions scientifically [always remembering that I'm no scientist]. Firstly let's think locally. What are the chances that these 'objects' or phenomena originate from another world within our solar system. We know more about our solar system than ever before, not only from space probes and space telescopes, but from the many improvements in ground-based observations and measurements in recent decades. It isn't universally agreed by astronomers that there's no life, apart from that on Earth, in our solar system, but it is universally agreed that there's no advanced life, on anything like a par with our own. There may just be microbial life, on Mars or Europa or elsewhere, but this is far from being substantiated. Is it likely that microbes are building elaborate craft and sending them to Earth? I think it's more likely that they're projecting themselves here individually, microscopically, and invading our bodies completely unseen and reprogramming our brains. This could possibly account for the rise of fundamentalist beliefs worldwide over the last decade or two.
Realistically, though, we're going to have to look outside our solar system for the homeland, or homelands, of these smart space critters. And we know that the nearest star to ours, Proxima Centauri, is 4.3 light years away - that's 270,000 times further from us than our sun. That's the closest region of origin. Space critters from that region would take over four years to get here travelling at the speed of light. Of course such speeds are impossible for any objects of mass, even sub-atomic particles, let alone the lumbering, light-flashing vehicles reported by ufo sighters. Pioneer 11, our old space probe, managed, with the help of Jupiter's gravitational field, to attain a speed of 175,000 km/hour. Briefly, of course. That's pretty impressive - 55 times the muzzle velocity of a high speed rifle bullet - but according to my calculations, the speed of light is more than 3,600 times faster. So, travelling from the Proxima Centauri region, a space craft travelling at a constant speed of Pioneer 11 at its fastest, would take at least 15,000 years to get here. Unlikely? Nah. A piece of piss.
These problems, which should be front and centre of any serious investigation into ufos, are never even mentioned in the documentary. At one point, one of the UFO believers makes a fleeting reference to anti-gravity devices, but that's about it. Anti-gravity was first popularized by H G Wells over a hundred years ago in his book, The First Men in the Moon. It's fiction, and so far nothing has come of the concept of 'gravity shielding' on a practical level. Even if it were possible, I'm not sure if it would solve the distance problem. Also, I'm no physicist, but I think that if it were possible, it would refute Einstein's General Relativity theory.
UFO sighters generally have no interest in these issues, they just 'know what they saw', and many of them believe in a conspiracy of silence. There are some people I know who just love conspiracy theories. I find then boring as all get-out, and there's not much to say about this one except, of course the US Air Force isn't going to investigate every UFO sighting. There are tens of thousands of them for god's sake. So they should only investigate the credible ones [5% of them according to the UFO fans]? Fine, so who determines the 5%, and are the UFO fans going to help fund these investigations? It's funny, it seems to me that most US conspiracy theory buffs are anti-government, often libertarian types. Small government, taxation is theft, all that malarkey, yet when government doesn't jump to do their bidding, spending squillions in the process, they have 'all their fears confirmed'!
I'm not against investigating these matters, but it's against a certain background knowledge. First, SETI and other organisations have been out to find extra-terrestrial life for years now, and they haven't succeeded yet. NASA has a Terrestrial Planet Finder on the drawing-board, but hasn't been provided with the funds to realize the project - conspiracy theorists please note. Still, telescopes are getting better and better at finding Earth-like planets, and the possibility of finding life elsewhere in the universe is exciting some of our best minds. UFO fans should be looking at all this if they really want answers to their questions. Second, are the alternative explanations of these phenomena really being exhausted before the leap to space critters? None of these sightings seem way way out of this world. The stuff being reported, photographed and videoed looks and sounds human, all too human. What's more, there is a pattern to these findings. Reports of flying saucers in the fifties looked like flying saucers, made of beaten panels of metal rivetted together, or something similar. They conformed to the technology of the fifties - no LED displays or anything like that. UFO sightings of the eighties looked like the technology of the eighties, and so forth. So let's use our brains before going on any expensive wild alien chases.
Dr Jen brings her A game
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